Kent Nagano: democratizing the Symphony Orchestra

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Kent Nagano on the OSM: its velvety, silvery elegance, and its relevance in the 21st century.

“I have the rare privilege of being part of a miracle, a moment in history that very few people get to live,” says Kent Nagano. That miracle is the Orchestre Symphonique de Montréal and all it has accomplished in recent years.

There’s the OSM’s 2008 tour of the Canadian Arctic; the concert in Lac Mégantic, in 2013, after the tragic rail accident; and the one last spring, in Pierrefonds, following the floods. There’s the Virée Classique, the annual mini-festival that kicks off with a free concert at the Olympic Stadium; the concerts in the Metro, at the Bell Centre and the Montreal Children’s Hospital. Not to mention the Musique aux enfants project, in which a group of children enrolled in an intensive music program are paired with an OSM musician.

And there’s the Maison Symphonique, another Nagano- era miracle. “A near impossibility in the 21st century. When Montreal, with the support of Quebec and Premier Jean Charest and his staff, decided to do it, the project went up in breathtaking time. This was in the middle of one of worst economic banking scandals in North America, and continued during the great recession, over the next three years. This was the exact period when Montreal decided to make a major statement: that Montreal and Quebec believe so much in culture that we’re going to invest in it for us,  and especially for the generations to come. At that particular time, when everyone was really afraid about economic stability throughout the world, that resolve and will to build one of the greatest concert halls in the entire world was very impressive,”  recounts Nagano.

Economic and artistic stability

Kent Nagano arrived in Montreal in 2006, a challenging time for the OSM. Charles Dutoit had left in a huff, the orchestra had gone through a period of acrimonious labour relations and the situation was very unstable. “When those periods last for a long time, the real concern is that there could be a disconnect with the community, and the public in general,” states Nagano, who set about bringing economic and artistic stability. His goal? “To bring the orchestra so close to the community that people could feel a real identity with and ownership of the orchestra, so that it represents the city as well as each individual.”

The ensemble was a revelation right from his first experience here, as guest conductor, in 1999. “I did something I never do. I was at the airport and bought souvenirs for my wife and daughter of this amazing place with its unusually talented orchestra.”

Especially memorable was the rehearsal period. Nagano was trying to describe a particular sound, one he was aiming for in Mahler’s 9th Symphony. He had visited the Monet exhibition at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts and asked how many of the musicians had seen the water lily paintings. “99.9 per cent of them had, which was very unusual. I said, ‘Do you remember the colour under the main lily? That’s the colour we’re trying to imagine, this violet dark-blue and the transition into black.’ With that image they could play exactly the harmonic progression that we were looking for. That’s just a small example of an unforgettable experience with the OSM.”

Relevance in the 21st century

According to Nagano, Canada’s oldest symphonic ensemble represents the best that the 21st century has to offer in terms of talent, technique and professionalism. What hasn’t changed since Sir Wilfrid Pelletier’s day is the OSM’s sound. “If you listen to old recordings, this velvety silvery elegance stays the same. The tradition lives on, but it’s a 21st century version of it.”

When he arrived in Montreal, one of the Maestro’s goals was to help the orchestra achieve leadership status in the 21st century. “The question was already in the air: what does classical music have to do with people living in the 21st century? Is it still pertinent?” In 2017, he doesn’t need to look far for proof that the OSM has risen to the challenge of democratizing classical music and reaching new audiences. “We have the youngest, or one of the youngest, median age audiences in the entire world and certainly in North America. When I look out from the stage at the audience, I see it getting younger and younger and younger, a visual representation of the relevance classical music seems to have for young people.”

With three more seasons at the helm of the OSM, one senses that he is both thinking ahead and looking back…

“I feel a very, very special attachment to Montreal and Quebec. I have found an extraordinary region in North America where inspiration flows as if from a spring, where the orchestra is unusually talented, but it’s also directly plugged into a very, very sophisticated audience—by that I mean in terms of cultural sensitivity. The public here is very special. It’s been an incredible experience working for, and serving, this  community.”

Text: Shelley Pomerance

Photo: Felix Broede


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